Fear and Loathing in Therapy

I’ve been reading Hunter S. Thompson, for the first time. I’d never encountered the wild, destructive, creative force of this writer before. I’ve also been watching biographical movies about him, and of course the movie based on his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The movie stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro.

It may seem curious for a depth psychologist to take an interest in the originator of “gonzo journalism,” especially since my interest is not to diagnose Thompson’s psychopathology. It would be easy to pin him down with a few diagnoses from the psychiatric Bible–the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Here is a man who suffered internally, a lot, took a lot out on those around him, indulged in consistently bad behavior, and made no apologies for his extensive alcohol and drug consumption. He would not be an easy therapy client, and as a matter of fact, he would likely never come for psychotherapy in the first place. In one of the interviews I watched, the interviewer asks about therapy and psychology. Thompson replies that he has no time for psychology; he is interested in politics.

His family and close associates give a picture of Thompson as both fiercely destructive and difficult, and keenly insightful and creative. It seems to me that his own personal madness may have given him a potent level of insight into the decadence of the society that he loved to rail against. In a poignant speech by his son Juan Thompson, in front of an audience in the author’s home town of Louisville, Kentucky, Juan says that his father taught him to see underneath the surface of things. It isn’t enough to go along with, for instance, the cover stories that we are told by the media and the government. You have to look for what is really true, even if it’s ugly and unpleasant.

I am reminded of a passage in the biblical book of Job. Job is a righteous man who’s done everything by the book. When his entire life is destroyed by tragic losses, he wonders how God could allow all this misfortune and chaos to happen. Job hadn’t done anything wrong. Towards the end of the book, God shows up and speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. At one point, God points to two wild and dangerous creatures that he’s created and says, in effect, check these two beasts out, Behemoth and Leviathan (traditionally believed to be the hippo and the crocodile). They are wild and powerful and beautiful. You can’t control them. They are fierce, and there’s nothing nice or pretty about them, but I made them. In fact, Behemoth is in some way the first of my creatures. In this passage, perhaps God is subtly revealing something of his own wildness to Job as well.

Who knows what this passage really means, but when encountering a wild force of a man, who broke all the rules, I am reminded of it. I can’t help but make the connection to psychology and its relation to wildness, or chaos. Psychology is no different from religion in that it tends to prefer the ordered, peaceful, well-behaved, and the safe. It will do what it can to enforce these values, with its diagnoses and its technologies of treatment.

Any therapy that lasts awhile is liable to encounter in some form the chaos that is part of living a human life. Not even the most sophisticated psychoanalytic theory and method will ever analyze away this element of the chaotic and uncontrollable. It’s a permanent fixture. Finding a way to relate to the Behemoth and Leviathan doesn’t come without great struggle. Destruction of self and other is all too easy to fall into. Yet for the psyche to be alive and in play, the individual has to forge some kind of creative relationship to chaos–one that gives the wildness a place in the work of individuation.

But enough, as Hunter might say, of my gibberish!

The “Field” of Depth Psychotherapy

There are many ways to practice depth psychotherapy these days. One meeting point that I see between various theories is a focus on the therapeutic relationship itself. What happens in the therapy hour has a way of generating therapeutic change. That means it’s important to pay attention to what happens in the “field”–that is, the space of the relationship that exists between client and therapist, and encompasses them both in the therapeutic hour. Many contemporary depth psychotherapists recognize that what happens there is the most important therapeutic factor in getting a person’s life and development unstuck and moving.

Depth psychologies often refer to the space of the therapeutic relationship as a field–something like a field in contemporary physics. This is a space where different elements of the two individual psyches in the relationship interact on many levels. When things are going well, there is a feeling to this space of being held safely, known, and welcomed. When challenges come up, it’s safe enough to work them through in ways that create helpful changes that ripple through the client’s life and relationships.

An alchemical image of the relational field

An alchemical image of the relational field

It’s not the therapist’s interpretations and interventions (however insightful they may be, and however attached he or she may be to them) that matter most. To say that depth psychotherapy is insight-oriented therapy isn’t quite right, in this view. When a therapist makes an interpretation that meets and helps the client make sense of a felt experience that’s hard to put into words, often the therapeutic factor derives from the feeling of being understood, of being known and held by the space of this relationship, with this therapist. Insights happen, but the curative factor is not the strictly cognitive event of understanding one’s own unconscious process.

It’s more a matter of feeling known than of knowing rationally.

This is a key distinguishing factor of depth psychotherapy and analysis from other therapies. We see that therapy creates a relational field in which both conscious and unconscious processes of psychological development come into play, get unstuck, and move forward. The field of the therapy hour eventually extends outwards into the client’s life in the world as the effects of therapy manifest themselves.

The Figure of Mercurius

Depth Psychologist CG Jung was fascinated by the mythological figure of Mercurius, who shows up in ancient alchemy as a trickster deity. Jung sees alchemy and its fantastical images and chemical experiments as a reflection of human psychology, and especially of processes by which individuals and relationships go through developmental transformations. Mercurius is the imaginary figure who gets us started on a path of transformation, and is also the ever-elusive goal of the process.

Here’s what Patrick Harpur says about Mercurius in The Philosopher’s Secret Fire:

“In Mercurius we see the characteristic that so excited Jung: he (or, she, or it) is coincidentia oppositorum, a coincidence of opposites, the point at which all the contradictions which rend existence are resolved. He is the beginning, middle, and end of the Great Work – prime matter, secret fire and Stone… Mercurius… is one’s own soul and also the Soul of the World; as personal as a lover, as impersonal as a god. Like the Tao, he is everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere. Like a trickster deity he is both sublime and ridiculous, never allowing his spiritual side to become divorced from matter, never allowing the high mystical goal of the Great Work to become altogether divorced from its dark physical side.”

This is the language of alchemy and mythic consciousness, and is rather foreign to modern sensibilities. Yet the psyche, as anyone who pays attention to dreams and waking imagination knows, does not behave like a machine. Mechanical metaphors for brain and behavior tell us something true about a biochemical and behavioral basis for psyche, but to be in contact with the psyche means to be in contact with a fluid, moving, emotional, and image-rich level of your being. Here, in this experience of the fluid psyche, Mercurius is a guide. It is also the level where real changes in the individual can begin to take place as the process of becoming oneself – what Jung calls “individuation” – moves forward.

An image of Mercurius